How to Show Kids the World with Disney Animated Movies: A Disney+ Watchlist
Think about it: Many children get their very first exposure to international cultures through the movies they watch—and they watch Disney movies more than any other kind. Now that the DisneyPlus.com streaming service collects all of the company's animated films under one digital roof, it's finally possible to consciously coordinate kids' early influences by taking them on a guided tour of the planet through what they watch with you.
Some of Disney's animated features are respectfully faithful to the traditions of the destinations in which they take place, but for others, the setting is nothing more than a painted cardboard background populated with pleasant stereotypes. All of of the movies have entertainment value, but some of them will teach your family more about distant corners of the globe than others.
We'll leave out the movies that are only nominally set in a place that has little bearing on the content (as in Tangled and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in which Germany asserts itself weakly). Likewise for films with fictional or unnamed locations (like Big Hero 6's "San Fransokyo," Onward's New Mushroomton, or the unnamed cities in Up and Bolt). Here are the distinct regions of the world where major Disney and Pixar films are set—and how instructive we think they'll be in introducing kids to new places.
Pictured: "A Whole New World" from Aladdin (1992)
Let's get this out of the way: No Disney movie is historically accurate. The storytelling is revisionism designed for the mind of a child. Characters speak more or less like American suburbanites to eliminate cultural barriers, and the broad, vaudeville-tinged oversimplifications proceed from there. Mulan is no different, but to a 6-year-old viewer in the family room, such inaccuracies don't register.
The locals at all of these places will tell you the films are inaccurate or too reductive. We can't argue with that; they usually are. But we're putting ourselves in the minds of children by asking if these movies are at least close enough to reality to stoke an interest in the destinations in which they're set.
Watching Mulan, the story of a warrior princess, kids will feel as if they understand a little bit of what made ancient China distinctive. A kid comes away with a perception of the culture's deep respect for elders and a sense of the size and scope of the country. There's even a visit to Beijing's Forbidden City for fireworks, which were invented in China. The movie's portrayal of Huns as dark-skinned brutes is definitely problematic, but as long as you talk about that part with younger viewers, we think Mulan makes for a decent intro to China.
The Jungle Book (1967)
If the only things you knew about India came from this movie, you'd think it was a wild, ruin-strewn thicket populated by hairy beasts with a penchant for music-hall jazz. Disney removed almost all the visits to the "Man-Village" that Rudyard Kipling had included in his Mowgli stories, so there's not much opportunity to showcase Indian culture. As an orangutan, King Louie would hail from around Indonesia, not India, and let's just say the stereotype assigned to those monkeys gives us a serious case of side-eye. There are a few oblique character shadings that might prepare kids for future lessons about Indian history—for example, the bull elephant Hathi speaks like a colonial-era British officer—but overall, don't look to this one to teach kids the bare necessities.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
Not bad—simple details of medieval Paris are foregrounded, from rowdy street festivals to the central role the titular cathedral has always played in Parisian life. And Quasimodo's tendency to cling to spires and swing over rooftops like a 15th-century Spider-Man affords the animators lots of opportunities to show off the city from above.
You'll get another whistle-stop tour of the rooftops of Paris as the animals cavort in The Aristocats (1970). This time, though, the French lesson is set in 1910 and laden with some skin-crawlingly outdated racial stereotypes that ruin any mind-broadening effects you might have intended by screening the film for a child.
This surpisingly long (111 minutes) Paris-set Pixar confection will teach your children the one thing about France that most French people would want them to know: The country values the very best in cooking and wine. The movie might also erase your kid's fear of rodents and concern for sanitation, but that's not France's fault. The buildings and cityscapes evoke Paris well. Bonus points for a depiction of a télécarte public payphone, an antique that by now would be as exotic to a modern Parisian as it is to an American kid.
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Beyond some vaguely European-looking village shots, the only clues you get to the setting are some Frenchified character names (Lefou, Maurice, Asylum D'Loons), a few "bonjours," and the fleeting line in "Be Our Guest" when Lumière notifies Belle that "After all, ma'am, this is France." It doesn't help answer any questions when you see that for some reason, the Beast's French castle is attended by Mrs. Potts, a character so obviously English that she takes the form of a pot of tea. Sure, this musical fairy tale is a classic—just don't expect much cultural exchange.
Kind of like a plaid Mulan, the Pixar-produced Brave is also about a princess who defies her parents because she wants to do the things boys get to do. Mostly, we get a cloistered view of Scotland: Lots of scenes are set in chilly stone palaces or in forests with bears (which no longer occur in the wild there). But when the plot ventures into things that are specifically Scottish, it unfolds amid the mountainous terrain of the Highlands and even hinges on a Highland games festival. The animators do not, however, provide us with a visual answer to the eternal question about what Scotsmen wear under their kilts. We get only a tease (pictured).
For a live-action Disney movie that does a more consistent job of evoking Scotland, check out the Edinburgh-set Greyfriars Bobby (1961).
One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)
The original canine caper renders a pretty, though non-specific version of England in a distinctively jangly 1960s style. There are short views from Primrose Hill in London and there are lovely snow-covered villages, but aside from accents, the elements a viewer would peg as unmistakably English come only sporadically. The actor voicing Pongo (Rod Taylor) is Australian, the actress voicing Cruella de Vil (Betty Lou Gerson) is American, and when the dogs visit the manmade Regent's Canal (pictured), which runs deep inland in north London, for some reason a foghorn sounds.
The Wind in the Willows, part of the The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949), also features some wild automobile driving in London and the surrounding countryside.
Robin Hood (1973)
Although Nottinghamshire is ostensibly the setting, this rendition puts Olde England strictly in the background. Most of the time, scenes take place in front of vaguely painted backgrounds that could be forests or fortresses anywhere.
The places that inspired A. A. Milne's source material for The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977) are still in and around the real-life Ashdown Forest, 30 miles southeast of London in East Sussex.
The Sword in the Stone (1963)
You get all the elements of ancient English legend—knights, tournaments, wizards—but in a remarkably unspecific environment. And why does the future King Arthur sound American? This is diversion, not immersion.
Peter Pan (1953)
Most of the movie's time in London is spent in the top floor of the Bloomsbury townhouse of a well-to-do family in the Edwardian era. When we finally fling ourselves out the window (don't try this at home), London appears mostly as a series of matte paintings in the background. They're accurate but passing. We do, however, encounter the clock tower of Big Ben, where Peter can't resist roosting on the clock's hands. Bad move, Peter: This started a long tradition of Big Ben trespassing in Disney movies. To this day, whenever the studio sets movies in London, filmmakers can rarely resist having characters horse around on the clockface, as in this scene from Mary Poppins Returns:
Cut it out, Mary. Big Ben is not a jungle gym.
The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
See what we mean? As soon as he reaches poor Big Ben's face, Basil of Baker Street, a mousy Sherlock Holmes stand-in, has his final showdown with his archnemesis, Professor Ratigan. For the rest of the movie, the characters bounce around a few other landmarks in 1897 London, including inside Buckingham Palace.
Norway should sue Arendelle, the fictional icy kingdom where the Frozen franchise is set. The architecture looks exactly like Norway's stave church tradition, the forests likewise look Nordic, and the steep rocky valleys are dead ringers for Norway's famous fjords. Even the source material by Hans Christian Andersen was set in northern Norway. Arendelle is so Norwegian, in fact, that Norway's tourism numbers skyrocketed after the film's debut, and at Epcot, a Frozen-themed ride took over the Norway pavilion in 2016. The kingdom is totally Norway, and faithfully so.
Other Europe-set movies in the Disney canon that, although mostly terrific, won't teach much about foreign cultures: Pinocchio (1940), which is set in Italy but could be almost any European locale; Cinderella (1950), which is French but not noticeably so; Alice in Wonderland (1951), which is more Fantasyland than England; and Hercules (1997), which the Greek government declared guilty of "distorting our history and culture."
¡Bravo! Coco might be the best Disney movie in history when it comes to delivering cultural authenticity, from demystifying the Day of the Dead holiday for non-practitioners to acknowledging the deep power of both music and matriarchy in Mexican culture. The details are well-observed, from the aguas frescas vendors in the background (pictured) to the mortal threat of a furious mamá chucking her chancla (flip-flop) at disobedient targets. There's a reason Coco has been embraced by kids with Mexican heritage. And even though the entire movie is one lighthearted take on death, it's the final scene that kills us.
Saludos Amigos (1942)
The reason Saludos Amigos was even made was to introduce American audiences to what life was like in South America in the hopes that North and South America would form a friendlier bond. It was all part of a World War II propaganda effort to steer those nations away from Nazi influence. The resulting film is a short (42 minutes) plotless travelogue that hops from place to place, showing off the locals (from llamas to gauchos to Cariocas) with a mix of live action and animation.
The Three Caballeros (1944)
Two years after Saludos Amigos came this companion piece, which continued Disney's entertaining exploration of South American customs and added Uruguay and Mexico into the mix. The South America we encounter is somewhat dated—we even meet Carmen Miranda's equally perky sister Aurora, who was virtually the patron saint of Rio de Janeiro—but the effort is plainly instructive. By the time the movie's over, kids may have received a wider exposure to these places than they're likely to get in their own schools.
"Paradise Falls" in the Pixar film Up (2009) is based on a similar waterfall in Venezuela, but the local culture doesn't figure into the plot.
The Emperor's New Groove (2000)
There are llamas, there's scenery that looks an awful lot like Machu Picchu in the Andes (pictured), and the main character is even named Kuzco (get it? like Cusco). But this version of Peru is mostly set dressing. When the credits finally roll on this Inca stinka, kids won't be able to say they understand Peruvian life any better. Blame skittish Disney execs at the time, who broadened the movie to give it mass appeal that never materialized.
Brother Bear (2003)
It's a shame this one was a box office disappointment, because artists clearly worked their tails off painting and CGI-ing some of the most beautiful and evocative backgrounds of any animated movie in history. Alaska's wilderness—as well as its Inuit culture—are front and center, with less of the foolish slapstick that makes some Disney movies feel like a sanitized burlesque act. All that, plus Joaquin Phoenix voicing a bear! For serving national-park realness, and for literally changing shape at a key moment in the plot, Brother Bear does Alaska right.
Lilo & Stitch (2002)
Whereas Brother Bear showcases Alaska's natural wonders, Lilo & Stitch balances Hawaii's beauty with a realistic look at what it's like to actually live there. Just looking at this watercolor-esque shot of a residential road, it's obvious the artists were working off reference materials and not some fantasy version of the 50th state. Of course the action goes to the beach. Of course there's surfing. It wouldn't be Hawaii without sand and surf. But ultimately, this is a story of a surburban girl in whch the suburb just happens to be in paradise.
If you know what a blue corn moon is, please fill us in. And if you think this movie is a legit depiction of 17th-century Virginia, please buy this bridge from us. No, Pocahontas is all mood and little truth. For this version of Tsenacommacah, the Powhatan name for the coastal flats around today's Jamestown, Disney somehow added sheer cliffs and forests with waterfalls. Topographical inaccuracies aside, at least the movie's central conflict will tee up a child's understanding of the ravages of colonialism. Pocahontas, a walking shampoo commercial who harbors deep respect for the land, clashes with Governor Ratcliffe, a corpulent gasbag consumed by imperialist greed and arrogance. The rest is romantic hooey: In real life she was not a princess and she did not see off John Smith's ship from the top of a cliff (there are no cliffs in the vicinity to begin with). It was actually Pocahontas who sailed to England, where she married someone else and swiftly died. And that's the nice part. Children should never find out what really happened to Ratcliffe.
The Fox and the Hound (1981) is also set somewhere in the Eastern United States, but neither the movie nor the source book reveal exactly where.
Oliver & Company (1988)
A Manhattan-set retelling of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, this musical does such a fine job of being true to New York that Billy Joel has a role in it. The backgrounds are nicely realistic—after all, they were modeled on reference photography taken on city streets during New York's grubbier days of the bygone 1980s. Also super '80s: 11 minutes of the film were created using a then-new technology called computer animation.
The Rescuers (1977)
Although there are a few early moments in New York City locations, including the United Nations, most of the film takes places in Devil's Bayou. That's not explicitly ascribed to a particular state, but given that the villain's lair is a half-sunken riverboat, it's a safe bet that we're talking Louisiana or lower Mississippi. This bayou is a dark and forbidding place of gators, muskrats, adorable mustachioed dragonflies, and a jewel-obsessed, red-haired child-trafficking nutter named Madame Medusa, who is perhaps the most perfect specimen from a long line of Disney villains who rave and howl like hyperbolic drag queens. Outrageous divas obsessed with bling? Come to think of it, the movie has to be set near New Orleans.
The Princess and the Frog (2009)
If The Rescuers hedges on asserting its Louisiana provenance, The Princess and the Frog goes all in. The Big Easy, in all its vibrant, musical, and multicultural magnificence, is handsomely rendered on screen, albeit in a sometimes sepia-toned 1912 version. From streetcars to Mardi Gras to voodoo to jazz, Disney hits all the right notes in showing little ones the essence of New Orleans as part of a good story.
Now for what not to teach kids in a movie. In this early Disney animated feature, a circus train departs Miami and somehow encounters mountains and tunnels where the Everglades ought to be. That's the least problematic aspect of Dumbo by far. Forget that elephants can't fly—in one scene, our underage protagonist gets drunk and suffers hallucinations, and the film's horrifying interpretation of crows eternally belongs in the Hollywood Racism Hall of Shame. The one thing the picture gets correct happened purely by accident: When the stork delivers baby Dumbo to the circus train, the bundle drops exactly where Walt Disney World would be built three decades later (pictured). That's some coincidence.
The Lion King (1994)
You're not going to meet many people who have seen this movie and don't feel like they've tasted a little of Big Game Africa. To this day, safari operators across the continent are afflicted by an endless plague of Western tourists greeting them with "hakuna matata" as if that was ever much of a thing before. But we're not going to knock it—this movie classic is an easy blend of tunes, scenery, broad entertainment, and mythmaking that would have Joseph Campbell nodding with approval. We're not sure where exactly Simba and company are supposed to be in Africa. Timon and Pumbaa's jungle looks more like Never Land from Peter Pan, and is that rainforest really supposed to be right beside the arid plains of the Pride Lands? Still, this is a movie aimed at kids, and it makes kids dream of seeing East Africa for themselves one day. It's also a lot shorter than Hamlet.
For an example of how not to animate Africa, see Disney's Tarzan (1999), a movie set in Africa that's populated with only white Europeans.
If you're trying to remember if Aladdin handled its setting with dignity, this still from the song "Prince Ali" is probably all you need to see. We're in buffoonish cartoon territory. Although the fictional kingdom of Agrabah is said to sit beside the River Jordan, the architecture looks a lot more like the Taj Mahal of Agra, India, which would be a 10-hour flight away. It only takes as long as an earworm by Alan Menken to go around the planet by magic carpet, though, so using that transportation method, Aladdin woos Jasmine during "A Whole New World" by whisking her past the Sphinx in Cairo and to a fireworks show above Beijing's Forbidden City, exactly like in Mulan. But is this movie accurate about any of the places it visits? We give it 1,001 Arabian nopes.
The story unfolds around the Polynesian isle of Motunui, which doesn't exist, and revolves around a community that worships the goddess Te Fiti, whom no one on Earth does. Although nearly everything about Moana is made up, the themes and designs were carefully researched from many Pacific influences—call it Polynesia polyglot. The approach made sense, because the many island cultures in that part of the world, though separate and distinct, have much in common. If Disney had to fake a place, at least it was faked well. Except, that is, for two aspects: Some Pacific cultures consider the demigod Maui sacred and didn't appreciate seeing him represented as a goofy character voiced by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Another problem was the title, which had to be changed to Vaiana in certain European markets—some say in order to avoid invoking the infamous Italian porn star–turned–politician Moana Pozzi. Did you know that? You're welcome.
Finding Nemo (2003)
Finding Nemo does a faithful job of acquainting kids with Australia's acquatic creatures (humans take a backseat here). The Great Barrier Reef, teeming with colorful swimmers like tropical confetti? Check. A trip with migrating sea turtles on a major ocean current? Check. Pelican's-eye views of Sydney Harbour icons such as the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House (albeit almost always from the vantage of the Taronga Zoo)? Check, check, check. One thing you won't really find in Sydney, however, is the movie's McGuffin: the address "P. Sherman, 42 Wallaby Way." That doesn't exist.
Don't expect a return trip Down Under with Finding Dory (2016). That's mostly set in Morro Bay, on California's central coast.
The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
Just like American tourists, The Rescuers Down Under tries to cram the entire continent of Australia into a short period of time. Stops include what's probably Kakadu in the Top End (for waterfalls and crocodiles) and the Red Center—even though the movie's Uluru (pictured) is just a drawing, animators were thoughtful enough to depict the monolith using only angles that the local Aboriginal owners consider respectful of their sacred site. That's not to say this movie is a faithful documentary: Disney stuffs kangaroos, wombats, and kookaburra birds into a single frame even though the places where those animals coexist are nowhere near the places where the plot goes. But all that won't matter if you're eight years old. Australia comes across as a wild wonderland that they'l like to visit one day. And that's the whole point.